October 22, 2019
It's every NBA writer's favorite time of year, where we make predictions about your favorite team that will be held against us if we're wrong and forgotten if we're right. The Sixers, a potential juggernaut with numerous question marks and red flags to shake off, are an especially tough to team to project beyond saying simply, "They're going to be good."
What would the fun in that be? The league starts on Tuesday night and the Sixers open up against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, leaving us all with some time to digest predictions. Here are 15 of my predictions for the season, some bolder than others, which I look forward to laughing at by the time mid-April rolls around.
I have been on the "Joel Embiid is a better shooter than he has shown" corner for the entirety of his NBA career, and I am not leaving it anytime soon. There's no reason he shouldn't be at least an average three-point shooter this season. He's already a good free-throw shooter, and he spends a lot of time working on his shooting, despite what he likes to tell the public about his supposed distaste for the perimeter.
If by the end of his career he never gets here and I have to go down with the ship, so be it.
The All-Rookie teams typically reward the guys who put up big counting stats, which is going to put Thybulle behind the eight ball here. He's not going to blow anybody away as a scorer, and his offensive production will come down to his shooting stroke and ability to time cuts.
But Thybulle has several factors working in his favor heading into the year.
Defense lags behind but is starting to catch up to offense in awards voting. I think Thybulle is good enough to be the rare guy who breaks through to the first team almost exclusively on the strength of defense.
The Sixers already have their young bench defender in Matisse Thybulle, flanked by a solid group of veterans who probably won't be giving up their spots in the rotation. That means any young player who hopes to get into the mix has to bring something different to the table to have a reasonable shot at minutes.
If I have to put my money on someone — and thank goodness I don't have to — it would be Milton, who can handle and shoot just enough to get himself on the floor. Brown has brought his name up unprompted several times during the preseason, and the Sixers don't have many players who can realistically get buckets on their bench. They may have to make a trade to change that, but in the meantime, Milton is the upside play.
Theft is a young man's game. Brett Brown has explained that he doesn't want to pull back on Thybulle's aggression just yet, and the rookie has confirmed multiple times that his head coach is empowering him to play aggressively. That may end up getting him burned against better offenses this season, but it's going to help him be the turnover-creating machine he was at Washington.
Last year, Paul George led the league in steals with 2.2 per game, and even with a limited role, that feels like an achievable number for Thybulle. I'll take the rookie.
Does this sound counterintuitive to you? Most likely. Thybulle was a master thief in the preseason, delivering similar results in man-to-man as he did when he was playing in a zone, and he looks primed to get plenty of minutes during his rookie season.
But the bar is surprisingly high for rookie steals numbers in NBA history. Three different players have averaged at least 2.5 steals per game during their rookie seasons — Mark Jackson, Ron Harper, and Pacers guard Dudley Bradley, the last of whom owns the rookie steals record at 211 total and 2.57 per game. The only player to eclipse that number over the last decade is Chris Paul, who is in the top-10 all-time in steals and led the league in that category six out of seven years from 07/08 through 13/14. Elite company to keep.
Thybulle is going to create havoc, but I think it'll get tougher for him to create turnovers as teams become more aware of him on the scouting report. Smarter offensive players are also going to bait him into some cheap fouls or hit him on back cuts this year, and my guess is he adjusts his style of play slightly to avoid getting his hand caught in the cookie jar.
I'm doubling down on one of my incorrect predictions from last season, even though his promotional tour for the Aladdin remake did not turn into a bell-ringing promo stop. The odds are against me, but I'm throwing caution to the wind for the Fresh Prince.
Come on, Will, you're a partial owner of the Sixers. Ring the effing bell, you coward!
Unless Joel Embiid suffers a major injury, he is going to be on an All-Defense team this season. He's as close as you can get to a lock for one of these teams for a guy with his constant health question marks. He has the prior reputation, he has the production and impact to back that up, and he will be surrounded by the best defensive supporting cast he has ever had. From there, I believe it gets trickier.
Ben Simmons said on media day he wants to be the best defensive player on the team and the Defensive Player of the Year, and I'm going to wait and see on that one. Effort has come and gone for Simmons on that end dating back to LSU, and while I support his right to make a mockery of the NCAA, shutting down players every night is not easy for a guy who has a ton of offensive responsibility to worry about. Then there's Thybulle, who I think is going to be in rare territory as a rookie but will have to overcome some serious young player prejudice.
I'm taking the coward's way out and just betting on two guys to earn this honor. Sue me.
Tobias Harris is the only potential weak link in the starting five. Mike Scott is the only guy firmly in the rotation who might be a potential liability on that end. The Sixers have the perfect blend of talent to be the league's best defense — an elite anchor, a versatile weapon, solid backup big options, a young thief, and the point-of-attack defender they've lacked for years.
Milwaukee has a head start on them, and the league's most versatile defensive player, but I think this is the year it all comes together for Philly on defense.
I've gone back and forth on this prediction throughout the preseason. Coming in, I thought Horford would be a shameless gunner, and he was letting it fly with no hesitation at times in the exhibition slate. But there were other times where his big man instincts took over, including when it led to some (proverbial) bumping of heads with Joel Embiid in the paint.
To bring the best out of both Embiid and Simmons, I suspect Horford will adapt. It's who he is and has always been, and the Sixers will give him the green light to let it rip.
Unless the fit for this team proves to be an on-court disaster, none of the major players are going to be trade candidates for the foreseeable future. That leaves the Sixers with few realistic candidates to be moved. Their role players are fine enough in specific roles, but they're not necessarily needle movers and they're not on huge contracts, which hurts for salary matching purposes.
So if the Sixers find themselves in a position where they need to grab, say, a shooter at the deadline, they need to make a pitch centered around upside to a potential partner. Smith's contract isn't super helpful for matching purposes, so they'd likely need to throw in more for a deal to get done, but you can sell a team in a developmental stage on taking a chance on him.
Elton Brand has proven bold in the trade market, for better and/or for worse, and I don't expect that to change moving forward.
I will not go any higher than this. I do not doubt Simmons has put in the work this offseason, but he has put in a lot of work in years prior to this one. He has to let it fly, and I'm keeping my expectations low.
I'm breaking from the pack on this one, and it seems to be silly based on Philadelphia's offseason. If signing Al Horford wasn't a clear enough sign they're taking load management seriously, Embiid's constant communication with Elton Brand should be enough to sway you.
But I'm just not convinced Embiid will be coerced into missing a lot of time when he's healthy. The Sixers refused to rule out appearances in back-to-backs for Embiid before the season started, and the focus seems to be on making sure his minutes stay low, not necessarily his games played. The strategic use of Kyle O'Quinn as a third big will help keep Embiid and Horford's legs fresh, and the Sixers should blow enough teams out that Embiid will get glorified nights off.
They are fighting for the top of the conference from jump street this season, and I suspect that will be reflected in Embiid's games played total.
Philadelphia's only natural scorer on the bench is Trey Burke, who doesn't even look like a lock to get minutes to start the year. Two of their starters (Horford and Josh Richardson) could end up being the primary backups for different positions than the ones they'll start the game in, and a top-heavy team is destined to rely on their starters to carry the scoring load.
The Sixers finished 27th in bench points last season and 24th the year before. I'm not expecting them to trend upward with the team leaning heavier on their starting five than ever.
This would be good for the best season the team has had since 1984-85, and I don't think it's unrealistic whatsoever. Unfortunately, they are fighting for the top of the conference against a team with the reigning MVP and a system in place that all their best players are already comfortable in. Even in autopilot, the Bucks should be able to churn out another dominant regular season.
And, well, that leads me to my final prediction.
After one good performance on the road to beat the Bucks last season, it was apparently decided the Milwaukee Bucks were a matchup the Sixers could handle. This was built into the claim the Sixers could (or perhaps "should") have won the whole damn thing last year.
I'm not as confident that's the case now if it ever was then. Giannis Antetokounmpo absolutely bullied the Sixers in their final meeting of the season, a 128-122 victory for the Bucks on Philly's home floor. Antetokounmpo routinely blew Simmons off of his spot in that final meeting, something we don't often see teams do.
In that earlier meeting with Milwaukee that Philadelphia won on the road, Embiid showed he can do a credible job guarding Antetokounmpo for stretches of the game, a strategy that proved to be the blueprint for how they used Embiid defensively against Pascal Siakam and the Raptors. Antetokounmpo scored 52 points anyway and the Sixers won by just five points, a margin that felt tiny considering how well they shot the ball from deep.
The Sixers are going to spend this season just trying to figure out who they are. Do they have enough shooting? Who gets the ball in crunch time? Is Simmons a 16-game player on top of being an 82-game player? Their assumed crunch-time five, no matter what they tell you, is trending in the opposite direction of where the league is headed. It's too soon to tell whether that gives them a market advantage or if it's a weakness sleeker teams can exploit when it matters, but as a new group, the onus is on the Sixers to prove it's the former.
Meanwhile, the Bucks are coming back with what is effectively the same team as last season, with the same bad taste left in their mouths that the holdover Sixers feel after losing to the Raptors. They have the advantages of being an incumbent without the risks of pride and complacency that cause backslides for more successful groups. They were the best team in basketball during the regular season last year, and though the loss of Malcolm Brogdon will hurt them, the guy who makes it all go is a 24-year-old freak of nature who has a case as the best two-way player on Earth.
This outcome, obviously, would be a major inflection point for the franchise. Should they fail to reach the Finals, there will be questions about the head coach, the viability of Simmons in the playoffs, Embiid's value in today's NBA playoffs, and all the other debate topics you could think of.
If the Sixers emerge as champions of the Eastern Conference in May, it will not stun me at all. But I can't sit here in October and say they're my favorite to emerge from the East with all the questions they have left to answer. I tried to warn you all about the Raptors last fall, and I'm doing it with the Bucks this time. Do not take them lightly. The Sixers certainly aren't.
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